While most of the discussion at the Board of Education meeting Tuesday February 9 was on the topic of remote attendance at Board meetings, and a policy which would allow such attendance, other important topics were addressed by the Board, and the public.
While no vote was taken on the topic, Superintendent Pat Charles reported to the Board on the recommendations of the Redistricting Committee.
Charles indicated that the goals set by the Board were worthwhile but sometimes contradictory. She also noted that while two public hearings were scheduled, three were actually heard because of changes demanded by the public.
Charles said that the recommendations of the committee were not to redistrict at all for the 2016-2017 school year. However, the lack of redistricting would not solve the problems of overcrowding at Farm Hill and Macdonough Elementary schools, and so the Farm Hill portable classroom would remain on site at the school. The portable was put in place as a short-term solution to overcrowding and at the time it was approved by the board, a duration of one year was planned. In addition the ICM program would move from Farm Hill school to an elementary school with more room.
At Farm Hill and Macdonough, kindergarten enrollment would be capped, forcing parents from those school districts to choose to have their children attend one of the other elementary schools. Siblings of those kindergarteners would also be allowed to switch schools. The Board of Education will have to absorb transportation costs for those children.
The committee also recommended remaining a committee to continue discussing the need to solve the problems of overcrowding and racial imbalance at Farm Hill and Macdonough, in light of the work a newly-assigned building committee will do to study the need to build a new middle school.
Several parents spoke in opposition to any redistricting now, or in the future, saying that the redistricting committee should be dissolved.
"A building committee has just been put in place," said steadfast redistricting opponent Catherine Roberts. "Should we let that work happen first befoe we have the redistricting committee waste their time?"
"It's my opinion they've completed their task," added redistricting opponent Chris Bonsignore.
Redistricting advocate Cathy Lechowicz continued to urge the Board to do the difficult work of holistic redistricting.
"I urge you to do it once, and do it well," Lechowicz said. "The idea of a "neighborhood school" is a misnomer. We don't have neighborhood schools, we have student concentrations around the school."
Lechowicz explained that in some neighborhoods, like those adjacent to Snow and Macdonough schools, students already travel to schools distant from their neighborhoods.
A vote on redistricting did not take place at the meeting.
While the budget was not discussed at length, Superintendent Pat Charles delivered some bad news, indicating that insurance costs for prescription medicines came in at a 26.52% increase over last years' costs instead of the expected 12% increase. The difference in increased budget dollars is more than a million dollars.
The BOE shares the prescription plan with the city, and also shares claims experience, which affects increases.
Charles delivered the sobering news, that the increase, in an already tight budget year meant that more items would have to be cut from her proposed budget in order to keep the total school increase under 5%.
The company which provides food service and building maintenance came up twice during discussions.
In a discussion of an RFP (request for proposal), Sodexo was named as one of the companies that would be bidding for the contract to provide food services to the schools. The company is the current vendor.
Under and agenda item, titled "Sodexo Criteria Update," Charles reported that Sodexo had performed well in transforming their relationship with the district and with union workers who staff the building maintenance crews. Charles did indicate that financial analysis of the contract with Sodexo indicated that the district could save somewhere between $220,000 and $240,000 a year if the district returned to having its own facilities manager.
"Those numbers don't tell the whole story," Charles said, indicating that school facilities are in much better shape since Sodexo took over.
Board member Chris Drake indicated that facilities staff and cafeteria staff were city employees, and were hired, and could only be fired by the city, and that contract negotiations with the unions these employees belong to were held without Board of Ed involvement.
Tuesday's meeting was the first to begin at 6:30, and the public portion of the meeting ended at just before 9, as the Board breezed through agenda items which had previously been stumbling blocks. The Consent Agenda, Department Reports and Committee reports were notably shorter than at previous meetings.
According to one board member, some of the time was saved because of "Sunday caucuses at Vinnie's house," (Board chair, Vinnie Loffredo) indicating that Democratic members of the board met and discussed board issues in private. This board member indicated that questions were raised and discussed at the caucus, and that those discussions would have otherwise taken place at the meeting, in public.
Freedom of information laws allow political parties to caucus in private, unfortunately this prevents the public from being a party to those discussions.